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Pool mates

Watery worlds evolve under the new spring sun, teeming with life, seen and unseen

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By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / April 26, 2009
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WARNER, N.H. - In the soft sun of another April, the man migrates with the salamanders, frogs, and turtles to the welcoming waters of a vernal pool. His wispy white hair is tamed by a black headband, his feet kept dry in the foot-deep water by neoprene waders. He moves with the slow surety of a heron, though, and in so many other ways is one with this world where tadpoles take shape and damselflies dance.

For 30 years, David Carroll has come to this aquatic oasis, a seasonal marsh-shrub swamp in the hills of New Hampshire that fills each spring with runoff and rain, but, like other vernal pools, usually dries by high summer.

Carroll stands still and his eyes, darting all around, settle on a spotted turtle nestled in reed canary grass.

"It's a male," Carroll says. "He's got a very dark face. And he's looking right at me."

It is easy, unless you are looking too, to miss such an intimate exchange. So many of us refer to these wet weeks as "mud season," as though they are but a lifeless slog toward the distant glory days of summer.

But snowmelt and spring showers each year create vernal pools that give life to so many creatures of the forest. The pools form in depressions big and small across New England, with perhaps a thousand or more set in the granite terrain of New Hampshire. Some are found in public places such as Audubon's Massabesic Center, in Auburn, and McLane Center, in Concord - where naturalist guides can help visitors see vernal pool secrets - or, for example, at Pawtuckaway State Park, in Nottingham. Sometimes, too, the pools form alongside hiking trails, or in boggy backyards.

Tread lightly, though. Sacks of wood frog eggs - black dots suspended inside a translucent blob - dangle upon stalks of grass, and salamanders can slither underfoot. Best to stand at the edge and wonder at the call of spring peepers seeking mates or spot the splash of sunning turtles taking cover.

Not far from a two-lane road, Carroll parks his car and steps toward the weakened white pines and thickets of alders bordering the vernal pool. A naturalist and painter who has spent his adult years wandering wetlands with precision and soul, Carroll sounds a few chirps. Suddenly, unseen spring peepers break their silence with a quick chorus. It will crescendo, toward the end of the afternoon, in a roar.

"To just come in here and let the human world fall away, that's a big thing for me," Carroll says.

The world Carroll enters is teeming with critical questions. As he wrote in his "Swampwalker's Journal: A Wetlands Year" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999): "Being dry for most of the year, vernal pools are uninhabitable by fish and are critical breeding places for a small group of invertebrates and amphibians: fairy shrimp, wood frogs, and spotted, Jefferson, blue-spotted, and marbled salamanders."

Life in the vernal pool is a race against time, as precipitation and temperature help determine when the pool dries out.

"Part of it is the drama each year," Carroll says. "Is it going to dry up before these salamander tadpoles achieve metamorphosis?"

In April, though, such questions wait, and much in this world seems asleep. Reed canary grass that covers mounds at the middle of the marsh is still brown. Branches of winterberry holly and red maple saplings that stagger the wide pond are bare. Turbulent gusts of cool air remind that this is the early edge of shifting seasons.

A brown blur shoots from shore into the pond, and Carroll says: "wood frog."

The small brown hoppers are among the first to come from their winter woodland homes to the warming pool. After mating, the egg sacks hatch into tadpoles that over weeks grow tails, then legs as the pond dwellers morph into frogs for a life on land.

But this ever-warming water also draws the caddis fly, mosquito, dragon fly, and damselfly. Blanding's turtles stop by, and spotted turtles, such as that which Carroll spies not far from the pool's edge.

Carroll takes a few swift steps and plunges a hand into the foot-deep water. On a second try, he lifts a thick bunch of reed canary grass and in it, the turtle.

It is roughly the size of Carroll's hand, and its black shell glistens. The yellow spots around the shell's edge have a brightness that the plants will begin to match over coming weeks. Carroll gently taps his index finger on the turtle's shell, as though greeting an old friend.

"He's probably been coming here for 20 or 30 years," he says. Carroll knows that a few weeks ago this turtle ended his hibernation in a shrub swamp 500 yards away and plunged into the vernal pool.

"He's come here to eat, and he's come because he knows the females come here," Carroll says. "It's going to be the real high time of his year."

For turtles and slimy salamanders, for swooping sparrows, raccoons, and rabbits that find their way to this spot, the vernal pool is only one part of their world. Carroll, who among other awards has earned a MacArthur Fellowship (often called a "genius grant") for creatively capturing in words, sketches, and paintings these creatures in all their stages, knows that not enough is done to protect them. And so, with a life's observation of the nuance of nature, Carroll, like Dr. Seuss's Lorax, speaks for the things that cannot. He knows it is important to have access to nature, but worries that more vernal pools and their surrounding ecosystems aren't kept as nature preserves off-limits to people. He wishes more areas were preserved as swampland habitat, and that development encroached much less on such unspoiled terrain in the first place.

"There's something about our species that can't imagine a landscape that doesn't have a human use," Carroll says.

Such talk, though, is quickly subsumed by the call of spring peepers, thumbnail-sized frogs that emit an ear-piercing cry in search of a mate. Carroll smiles against the angling light of late afternoon, and he knows that there is not so much separating us from the creatures that find life in the pool.

Male wood frogs, their call more like the quack of a duck, raise a gentle song, ready to get down to the business of breeding.

"We are all wood frogs, at heart," Carroll says. "We are all vernal pool animals."

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

If You Go

Massabesic Audubon Center

26 Audubon Way, Auburn

603-668-2045

www.nhaudubon.org

McLane Center

84 Silk Farm Road, Concord

603-224-9909

www.nhaudubon.org

Pawtuckaway State Park & Campground

Route 156, Nottingham

603-895-3031

www.nhstateparks.com/paw.html

Manchester Cedar Swamp

The Nature Conservancy

Countryside Blvd., Manchester

603-224-5853

www.nature.org